Picking gooseberries in my garden today for the first time in years, I murmur (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) that gooseberries do not go gentle into that dark night (of my deep freezer). I’d forgotten just how painful they are to pick, due to the long, sharp spines cunningly interspersed between the fruits.
In the early evening sunshine, it’s a battle of wills. I want to harvest its fruit at the peak of ripeness, before the forecast thunderstorms arrive and turn their now firm berries to mush, but the spiny bush seems determined to repel me. But I don’t give up. To stop myself fretting about how much time it’s taking, I fall to thinking of when I first became aware of gooseberries, when I was a child.
There was a neat grid of soft fruit bushes at the bottom of our next door neighbour’s garden. The man of the house tended his soft fruit carefully, and I watched the berries fatten from a distance. Although I was friendly with his children, and used to go next door to play, I was never allowed to taste a single berry; nor were his children allowed to pick them from the bush. They were forbidden fruit.
But I did get to taste gooseberries regularly at my Grandma’s house, where I went at school dinner time every day during my primary school years. (In those days, it was a case of eat school dinners or go home – I don’t know why packed lunch was not an option.)
Grandma’s gooseberry tart was sublime. She baked it in an old-fashioned dish, which lent a not unpleasant tinny flavour to her delicious pastry. After it was cooked, she sprinkled caster sugar over the top, which pooled in little indentations where the pastry lid undulated over the gooseberries. We’d eat the pie cold, as she’d have made it for Sunday dinner with my Grandpa the day before. From the first bite, its chilled acidity coated the inside of my mouth. As I ran back up the road for afternoon school, I carried the delicious tang with me. I can even taste it now.
Cottage Garden Idyll
20 years later, finding soft fruit in the garden was one of the reasons that I was desperate to buy the cottage I live in now. For a long time, I had enough blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries to justify jam-making. By the end of August, one shelf in my larder had the look of a jewellery box about it, rich colours shining out through deep rows of neat glass jars.
But about ten years ago, these bushes reached the end of their natural lives. In the interests of crop rotation, their former beds were designated for less beautiful foods – potatoes, courgettes, beans. All useful staples but none to make your colander look like you’ve plundered Aladdin’s cave.
Then last year a kind gardening friend bestowed upon us some surplus soft fruit plants. Thanks to the wet spring and recent heatwave, I’m now able to pick my own blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries for the first time in a decade.
A decade is long enough for me to have forgotten how prickly gooseberry bushes are. Picking gooseberries is as hazardous as clipping a hedgehog’s toenails. My arms and hands are quickly etched with scratches.
These fat red fruits may be raging against the dying of the light, but soon they’ll be in the dark depths of my freezer (not quite enough for jam this year). In a few months’ time, I’m planning to rustle up my own gooseberry pie. On a dark winter’s day, it’ll be a great way of bringing back memories of this summer’s heatwave – and, from a much more distant past, the warmth of my grandmother’s love.
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